MISSING PERSON

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Chapter 43

Back at the hotel, I stripped out of my fancy clothes, which were already wrinkled and soiled, and tossed the entire outfit in the trash. I spent twenty minutes in the shower, scrubbing my skin raw; I didn’t feel any better or cleaner when I emerged, but I felt different, and that would have to do.

I dried myself off, pulled on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, and tossed the contents of my overnight bag for a dusty and wrinkled sweater. I was exhausted and I was dehydrated and I needed a drink more than I’d ever needed one in my life. But first, I needed to call my father.

He answered right away. I told him that I was in for the night, that I’d be back the next day. His relief was palpable, but when I tried to sign off, he hesitated. “Are you going to tell me what happened?”

“Yeah.” I was lying on the hotel bed now, flat on my back. “Yeah. They got divorced. The woman, the driver I ran into, she took the kids.”

“So what was the problem? Why was he threatening you?”

“He’d gotten into some trouble. Financial, white-collar stuff. Fraud, embezzlement, I don’t know the exact details. And the wife, she figured it out, was going to turn him in, and he freaked. So she made a deal with him: she wouldn’t report him, but only if he’d close the business, leave her the kids and enough money to live on, and otherwise never contact them again.”

“Oh.” There was a long pause, and I closed my eyes, but the images I was seeing only became clearer. I bit down on my tongue, hard, until the pain offered a distraction. “But he was threatening you?”

“Yeah. The only people who knew about his crime were him and the wife, and then when she left, I found his company, the one that had closed, and he worried that I’d put the pieces together. That I’d turn him in.”

“I see.” I waited. “And he let them go, the wife and the children? He did that, he left his children, he thought that was better than facing punishment?”

“Apparently,” I said.

I don’t know if my father was convinced, but he didn’t say anything.

I left my phone on the desk. I headed on foot to a pub I’d passed on the drive over, and let a waitress lead me to a seat on the patio. The air was cool now, carrying no memory of the afternoon, and the other plastic tables were empty. A sign by the door advertised a karaoke night; inside, a lineup of singers, off-key and uninhibited, took their turns at the mic, and their voices, loud but unintelligible, carried to my table.

It was several minutes before the waitress returned, apologizing for keeping me waiting. I hadn’t even opened the menu, though, and I did so now; and after scanning the options I ordered a club sandwich because I was still feeling queasy, and an ale because I didn’t care. She scribbled a few words on her pad, collected my menu, and sailed back into the building, leaving me alone again.

I didn’t see her place the plate and the mug on my table. I barely noticed the cars pass by the patio. I was only slightly aware of the couple who claimed a table a few feet down, and I didn’t see them leave. It was only when the waitress addressed me directly that I noticed the relative quiet inside, the thinning of the karaoke crowds. “Everything all right there, miss?”

I’d barely touched my sandwich. My drink remained at the edge of the table, exactly where it had been placed, and the foam had settled. “Yeah,” I said. “Everything’s fine.”

She stood there for a few seconds, and I thought she was going to speak, but she turned and went back inside without a word.

There would be plenty of time to forget. But now, I had a short night and a long flight ahead of me, and I had a father who wouldn’t sleep well tonight, even if I did. I left the sandwich and the drink where they were, slipped a twenty dollar bill under the plate, and returned to the hotel, alone.

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